Our Response to Victims of Sexual Trauma Will Determine The Outcome of Their Healing

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An edited version of this article is published at The Sydney Morning Herald, however, this is the original and full-length version.

It’s late afternoon and I ride my bike; country roads, dirt roads, lonely places. Twenty kilometres turns into thirty, turns into forty-five. Lately I have been riding more than usual. At some point I realise it’s less about movement and more about escape. I don’t allow the thought to linger.

The September winds bluster, bitter and relentless. An old farmer once explained them as the Spring equinox winds. The blowing out of winter. The making way for summer. I should welcome them – their representation of longer days, more hopeful days. Instead, I resent the way they force themselves upon me, uninvited. I am angry at the way they won’t let up and my legs burn and my lungs burn and they do not stop and I cannot stop, either. Anger propels me. Hours pass. I’m still riding.

I recognise the anger, the familiar warmth and comfort of it. Triggers aren’t always immediate or apparent, but often harder to pinpoint. We find ourselves short-tempered, impatient. An edge in our voice. A shoulder angled away. Less outward engagement, more inward turn. An underlying simmer we feel inside our organs. It isn’t until we excavate beyond these outward expressions that we are able to unearth our truths within them.

This week I’ve been watching the Netflix series, Unbelievable. The show is based on the 2015 news article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” about the story of an 18-year-old woman who reported a rape but was later accused of false reporting while her rapist continued to carry out horrific crimes for a further two years before being eventually caught by two female detectives in Colorado.

The series is fearless in its willingness to explore trauma. There is much to respect and admire in both the writing of the show and its execution. For me, as I have watched, I have been most drawn to its portrayal of the varied responses to trauma which women experience – more so, the assurance that they need not apologise for the ways in which they have responded to, and processed, their trauma.

I think of this as I ride uphill. Take mouthfuls of air into my lungs. Push. Punish. Push harder. In episode five  of Unbelievable there is a scene where Amber, a victim of the serial rapist, stands outside the church service she has just attended with detective Karen Duvell and says,

“I bought a gun. I give my dad hell about hunting wild turkeys, and here I am at a shooting range. I met a guy there. Two, actually. I have no idea why I slept with either one of them. I didn’t plan on it. I just… if Eric found out. If anyone found out – my friends, may family. Sorry, um, you came here to worship, not to hear how crazy I’ve turned.”

Duvell replies to this, “You don’t sound crazy to me. You sound like someone who’s been through a trauma and is looking for a way to feel safe again and in control. And there is nothing crazy about that.”

I found myself simultaneously gripped and undone by this scene. I cannot stop thinking about it; as I work, shower, grocery shop, make dinner. It is with me again as I ride – try to outride – the anger it dredges from my most unseen places.

Rape Trauma Syndrome is the psychological trauma experienced by a rape victim that includes disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal behaviour. It is a cluster of psychological and physical signs, symptoms and reactions common to most rape victims immediately following a rape, but which can also occur for months or years afterwards.

There is no typical or expected way to process rape or sexual trauma, as we are shown in Unbelievable. Some victims outwardly express the trauma through agitation or anxiety, others are more controlled and appear to be without emotion, while others again go into shock and feel confused, disoriented and unable to concentrate.

Likewise, sexual relationships become disrupted and while most would expect victims to shy away from sexual interaction after rape, many survivors lean toward the other extreme and become hyper-sexual or promiscuous as a way to feel in control of their lives and regain autonomy over their own bodies.

In an article on how childhood sexual abuse can lead to promiscuity, Tia Hollowood writes, “Sex became an escape on several levels. It was a dopamine-, serotonin-, endorphin-loaded experience. I did not have to be emotionally attached. I could have the satisfaction of being found attractive, wanted, and worthwhile, while still escaping any controlling relationship or the possibility of abandonment. As a final defence, my reckless encounters could trigger dissociation, which remained my ultimate escape for many years.”

There was a point in my life, some years after I had stopped being raped by my stepfather, when life spun out of control. It was during this time I plummeted into self-destructive behaviours, yet also during this time I was regularly involved with a church. There is no amalgamation of these two things; you cannot both fornicate and worship on the same day, at least, not without some measure of compartmentalisation, which as it turns out, was a skill I was quite adept at.

However, there is always the shame; man-made or church-made or God-made, tangled around the compartments of your psyche like a barbed-wire fence; the harder you try and remove yourself, the more it pierces your flesh. Eventually the shame drove deeper than I could continue to carry. I sought help; a broken woman in need of compassion and grace and permission to be human. Instead, told I carried the lust of my stepfather inside of me. I was not cared for, but prayed for; advised to repent of my sins that I would be forgiven and washed clean and made acceptable before God.

There’s a quote that occasionally surfaces on my social media pages which says, “I sat with my anger long enough, until she told me her real name was grief.” (unknown) I ride until my body is spent; until there is nothing left for me to give anymore, until there is nothing left for me to outride anymore, until there is nothing left but surrender, then pull over on the side of the road, and weep.

I realise it is grief, this thing which has inflated inside me; I am a swollen riverbank who can no longer contain the burden of overflow and in that moment I yield. Allow this long-held grief to seep from my bones and form salt-crusted recesses in the pale earth alongside my feet. Drain myself of its heaviness, it’s mass. Grief for what I needed most, and was not given. It is a different grief than the mourning of something you once had, and lost; more desperate grasping for than letting go of. Clawing at the deficit of our basic human need for understanding, compassion, grace, forgiveness, acceptance, validation, empathy. Trying to fill the wounds of gaping scarcity with our bare, empty hands.

The thing about the process of healing, is it must be the same as the process of grieving, or even the process of development; there must be stages and milestones and if we are denied these things or shamed because of them, our healing cannot occur as it needs to. We struggle to move forward; stagnate, eventually regress. Loathe ourselves for our incapacities, and how they affect not just ourselves, but those who would try to love us.

For years I lived overwrought with shame because of the judgement from those who were not given the burden of my shoes to walk in; whose knees did not bleed like mine when that walk eventually became a crawl. I allowed this shame to destroy my self-worth and convince me I was unworthy. When what I needed to be told was promiscuity does not make a person morally defective or inferior – that our worth has nothing to do with the number of people we have been with, nor the ways we have chosen to survive.

Also, however, that engaging in promiscuity as a means of control and autonomy will not reconcile the symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome, nor elicit healing. But that it is still a normal, valid and expected response to sexual trauma, and one which should not be met with judgement or condemnation, but empathy and compassion.

How we respond to victims of sexual trauma will determine the outcome of their healing. We must understand that at the core of Rape Trauma Syndrome is the innate need for permission to be human. Whether we understand or not, or agree or not, we cannot deny victims of sexual trauma the fundamental right to process trauma in whatever way makes them feel most safe and in control of their shattered world.

As the afternoon sun deepens its yellow hue, I stand; note the way the shadows have lengthened, the new softness of their silhouettes. The ride home is an act of purification; I breathe in crisp air mingled with wattle, breathe out that which I will no longer call mine. Realise not all of us will have Duvell’s in our lives to hold such generous space for us. Understand that makes us no less deserving of such tender grace.

Why I’ve Learned To Trust My Nervous System Over My Heart

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One thing I’ve learned in the last while is the most accurate reflection of our truth is not found within our mind, or heart, but in our autonomic nervous system; the system of our body which rests outside voluntary control.

Meaning, it cannot lie.

It is our nervous system which communicates emotions to our entire body. Ongoing suppressed emotions like anger, stress, fear, frustration etc cause overload to our nervous system, creating imbalance and chaos which, if left unchecked, leaves us in a state of fight-or-flight mode where we remain until we choose to deal with these emotions.

For me, the suppression of emotions has always manifested as fibromyalgia. Studies show women who suffer trauma or abuse in their childhood are 65 times more likely to develop fibromyalgia, citing abuse as the leading cause. It’s often classed as a mystery illness; as in, doctors cannot find an actual cause, nor a cure. Which makes perfect sense, if you look at fibro not as a physical disease, but the physical response of the nervous system to negative emotion.

It doesn’t matter that I am now no longer in a situation of abuse or trauma, my body’s response to ongoing stress or negative emotion is still the same.

It doesn’t matter how clean I eat, whether I exercise, get enough sunshine or sleep or how much self-care I allow myself in a physical sense; if my life is unbalanced in an emotional sense – whether that’s too much stress, a situation that is causing a negative emotional response, a relationship in my life that is no longer healthy, whatever – my nervous system will always respond with chronic pain because it cannot differentiate the different types of stress, only that the negative emotions in my life today mirror the same negative emotions in my childhood, therefore the response of the nervous system is the same even if the circumstances are not.

It doesn’t matter what I tell my heart and mind – that I’ve got this under control, that I can manage, that I’m not that stressed, that a relationship in my life is healthy even though I know it compromises my values or boundaries or the person I choose to be. My nervous system knows better. And whenever I have a fibromyalgia flare-up, I know I need to examine what it is in my life that does not belong there or does not align with my authentic self.

It’s easy to want to resent our nervous system when we suffer these flare-ups. Instead, we need to learn to listen to what our body is trying to tell us. We need to learn to identify the stress, or the suppressed emotion, or what it is in our life that is causing misalignment. And once identified, work through those emotions, or take action to change the things in our lives we know have no place there.

The nervous system is a gift, if we can learn to surrender to its wisdom and honour its place in our journey to healing and wholeness.

So Yesterday, I Had My Last Therapy Appointment

So yesterday, after many, many months, I had my last appointment with my therapist. As in, I don’t need to see him anymore unless I want to or feel it necessary. As in, we’re both pretty happy with where I’ve arrived. As in, thank fuck for that.

I told him my biggest fear at this point was feeling too regulated; like maybe I was missing something. A blind spot I don’t even know exists until the collision happens. Like, maybe I’ve just become so good at compartmentalising I’ve managed to fool even myself into thinking I’m doing okay.

Healing is a funny thing like that.

But the girl who sat in his office yesterday is not the same girl who walked in a year ago.

It’s not to say I’m fully healed; I don’t think those of us who have lived through trauma and abuse of any kind can ever declare the work of our healing finished, as such. Complex-PTSD isn’t that straightforward.

But I’m so damn thankful for the work I’ve done and who I’ve become. I’m so damn thankful for everything I’ve achieved and the life I’ve fought for; the refusal to be a victim of my circumstances and determination to overcome them.

I’m so damn thankful for the little girl inside me; the born fighter who made it through what many wouldn’t have. I’ve learned to offer her the love and grace she was never given; to forgive her for the ways she chose to survive when she knew no better. To gently pry those ways from her fingers and say, “here, we don’t need these anymore,” and teach her new ways.

I’m so damn thankful I didn’t give up when it got hard. That I walked through the anger, rage, grief, loss, shame, mourning. That no matter how hard it felt, I made myself feel it. That it would have been easier to remain where I was, but that I chose not to.

I’m so damn thankful for the boundaries I’ve learned to put in place; more so, for believing I am worthy of these boundaries. For knowing my worth. For knowing I am deserving of nothing less than what I am worth. For knowing the value and worth in everything I am and all that I do.

This isn’t to say it’ll all be all rainbows and unicorns from here. There will still be dark days. There will still be moments of pain and heartbreak and brokenness. But it’s not our place to fear or judge these feelings, they just are; such is what it means to be human. And such is what it means to be a poet; to observe, to feel – everything – and lay it down upon the page.

But for now, I’m just so damn thankful for all that I have let go, and all that’s left ahead for these empty and open hands to take hold of.

I’ve Been Thinking About Grief Lately

I’ve been thinking about grief lately.

About those of us who weren’t given the childhood or upbringing we deserved; about what it is to grieve for something that never existed.

I find myself recognising the stages of grief more as they happen – the perpetual cycle of denial (this hasn’t affected me), anger (all I wanted was a normal childhood), bargaining (maybe something good can still come of this), depression (I will always be fucked up and unloveable), acceptance (it is what it is and I’m doing okay).

I keep getting stuck in anger. I see my lack of self-worth; the way it affects my relationships, my work, my belief that I am not just as capable as others, but also as DESERVING. I see myself sabotaging these things from the belief that I will never be enough. I obsess over who I could’ve been if I didn’t have a childhood of trauma and abuse; if I hadn’t left home so young to escape that. If I had been nurtured and loved and protected and raised without a shred of doubt that I. AM. WORTHY.

I’m reminded of my favourite quote on grief from Jamie Anderson: “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

I’m still learning to understand what it means to grieve for something I never had. How not to be jealous of those who have this. How to deal with the sadness and loss and longing that overwhelms me at times. How to let go of the anger and find acceptance.

But if I choose to believe that grief is love with no place to go, then so must I choose to build that grief a home. To not just love those in my life with abundance, but also love myself with the same measure.

So must I believe I am worthy to be that home; to believe I am worthy of a love that was never received, but always deserved.

The Silent Retraumatisation of Sexual Abuse Victims We Don’t Talk About Enough

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“There is nothing untoward in his examination yet I am not in control and this touch is not wanted and it’s too much and I am unclothed and vulnerable and overwhelmed with triggers and the only escape I have in that moment is disassociation.
 
The switch flips; in less than one second I am mentally and emotionally no longer present, retraumatised by a simple and routine medical procedure deemed necessary to potentially save my life.
 
It takes me weeks to recover and find my way back to myself again.
 
Two years later, a reminder letter comes in the mail.
 
I throw it in the bin.”
 

I don’t often publish my articles on my blog, but I want to share this one with you today.

Having a Pap smear is an uncomfortable moment for most women. For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it’s nothing less than traumatic.

There is not enough help or support for those in this situation, with three out of four women denying themselves life-saving care because the fear of being retraumatised is greater than the fear of cervical cancer.

There needs to be more discussion, more awareness, more understanding, and more care for both victims of sexual abuse and violence and the people who care for them.

This article was incredibly difficult to write, but needs to be read.

Full article over at 10 daily today, link below x

Why A Routine Trip To The GP Leaves Me Mentally And Emotionally Shaken

 

Day Eleven #PoemADayFeb – First

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I lost my voice when I was seven;
buried in an unmarked grave
where all untold stories go to die.
I learned it’s quite a skill to hold
a lifetime of words beneath your tongue
and not choke on the debris of letters
that fester in the back of your throat;
to swallow truth like a hungry dog with
bared teeth;
willing another to not come close enough
to taste such foul feast upon their lips.
It turns out there is no minute of silence
for silence;
no funeral for people to dress in black
and eat jelly cakes
and cluck tongues over the tragic loss
of life taken too soon.
Innocence taken too soon.
There is only the sound of applause; let a
woman learn silently with all submissiveness.
I am thirty-four when I find my voice again,
yet it is not the first time I speak
which brings me to my knees,
but the first time I am heard.

© Kathy Parker 2019

Day Eleven #PoemADayFeb – First

How We Break Free From Negative Cycles

Too often we find ourselves caught in negative cycles, either our own self-defeating patterns or in our relationships with others. Sometimes it can be a blind spot we don’t see, other times something we see but feel powerless to change or break. Either way, being trapped in these negative cycles shackles us to people who hold us back, to our past defeats, to history that repeats itself, to the versions of ourselves we desire to be free from. Staying in these cycles leaves us disempowered and feeling we have no control over our lives but are held at the mercy of other people or circumstances; forever pulled into a place not of our own choosing.

It takes strength, courage, determination and persistence to break these cycles, but we can never find the freedom to move forward until we consciously make the decision to do so. It isn’t something we can achieve through happy vibes and positive thinking, it takes more than that. It takes awareness and acknowledgement. It takes a decision to say, no more. It must be purposeful and mindful; a conscious decision we choose every day to move away from the negative cycles – from all that has held us back and held us down – and move toward the life we envision for ourselves.

Now is the perfect time to reflect on all that has held us back in the past year and make the decision to let go of that which no longer serves us well. To say, no more. No more will I be pulled back into those negative cycles. No more will I allow another to disempower or control me. No more will I believe I’m not deserving of freedom. No more will I believe I’m not worthy of the life I deserve.

K x

For My Fellow Survivors ❤️

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For my fellow survivors ❤️
 
It says on pill bottles as a disclaimer, do not operate heavy machinery. The irony in all of this, is trauma is heavy fucking machinery, which is to say, I’m not giving you permission. But if you ever decided it was too much and you wanted to rip yourself from the soil of this world, I would understand”
 
Sometimes, I feel like my heart is doing okay. And then, without warning, something wrenches it open and I come undone. I listened to this spoken word poem today and came completely and utterly undone. Because as people who have survived trauma, this is the kind of validation we need. We need to know it’s okay to feel what we feel, no matter how dark, no matter how terrifying, no matter how uncomfortable it makes others feel. Rarely do I allow myself that validation. Instead I tell myself I’m fine. I tell everyone else I’m fine. So goddamn fine. Except, some days I’m not fine.
 
Today I’m not fine.
 
There are days I still wake up so damn tired; beaten before the day has even begun. Beaten by the memories and the flashbacks and the triggers and the demons and the shame and the anxieties and the fears and the way these things seem to find me in the night while the rest of the world sleeps and leave me feeling like a small girl in a big world; so very alone and afraid. I woke up today like this; the graveyard of my heart dug open in the night and me, too weary to fight against it. To outrun it. To stay above it. To shovel the dirt upon it once more.
 
“You will feel broken. It is okay to feel broken. Broken is where the healing begins. This is where we begin. This is where we begin again, and again, and again.”
 
Healing doesn’t come in straight lines and even spaces. It is a wayward journey that brings us back to the places we need to be broken once again; that after the breaking, eventually, we will know the rising.
 
But for today, I am reminded it’s okay to be broken. It’s okay to feel this way. It’s okay to begin again. Today, I am reminded I am not alone in this.
 
“You, survivor, are still here.”
 
I am still here. You are still here.
 
And by god, the world will see us bloom.

And I’m Not Sorry For Choosing Me

The more I begin to heal the less I find myself apologising for it.

It would be easy to say sorry.

Sorry for the ways I have pulled away.

Sorry for the ways I have let you down.

Sorry for the messages I have not replied to.

Sorry for the calls I have not answered.

Sorry for my absence.

Sorry for my silence.

Sorry I can no longer meet your expectations.

Sorry I can no longer meet your needs.

Sorry I can no longer put your needs above my own.

Except, I’m not sorry.

Because, the thing is, it isn’t me that needs to heal.

It’s the little girl within me; the wounded child that nobody protected. Or stood up for. Or put first. Or made to feel mattered.

The girl who was not heard, or seen.

The girl who grew up believing the needs of others were more important than her own.

That her body was not her own.

That her voice would never be heard.

That she wasn’t worth the respect of others.

That love was something to be earned.

That boundaries could be crossed by whoever so pleased.

That her value was not in what she could give, but only in what others could take.

I am fighting for her, because no one else ever did.

I am putting her first, because no one else ever did.

I am standing between her and the world; honouring her, protecting her, nurturing her, allowing her the time and space to mend the brokenness without more being taken when there is nothing left to give; without more of the world pulling her in every direction with its demands and expectations.

Because she matters. Because I matter.

I am choosing to heal the way I need to; my time, my way.

I am choosing me.

And I will no longer apologise for that.

– ©️ Kathy Parker 2018 –

Thank You for Teaching Me I Was Worth More Than You: An Open Letter to the One Who Nearly Broke Me, But Not Quite

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“You didn’t love her. You just didn’t want to be alone. Or maybe, maybe she was good for your ego. Or maybe she made you feel better about your miserable life. But you didn’t love her, because you don’t destroy the person that you love” (Grey’s Anatomy)

When I look back now, it’s hard to believe I ever thought you loved me. How desperate I must have been to call that love when in your hands I became so small; crushed by the heaviness of your fingers as they pressed into my skin, the imprint faded but still visible after all this time. How eroded my worth became with each crash of furious words that washed against the already worn breakwaters of my heart. How afraid I became of not just you, but of everything I once was that I no longer trusted myself to be, for fear I would take a wrong step and set off another landmine beneath the surface of your skin.

You left that day, stopping only to push the knife in a little deeper on your way out the door. The pain was so great I hoped to bleed out, right there on the floor where you left me. I wondered if I could survive what you had done to me; if I even wanted to. But resilience has always coursed through my veins faster than sorrow and though weak, I found the courage to pick myself up from the floor that day.

It all seems so long ago now. How far I have come since these pale scars were once open wounds. How distant the taste of bitterness upon my tongue now seems. I’ve long since stopped wanting to call, to write, to tell you of all the ways you nearly broke me, but not quite. Instead, I have come to realise should I ever pass by you on the street, there is only two words I would need to say.

Thank you.

Thank you for teaching me I will never again settle for someone who can destroy a woman and call that love; who can not only justify their abuse through victim-blaming, but make a woman believe they actually deserved such abuse.

Thank you for teaching me I will never again be controlled by another in a relationship; that I am the keeper of my own life, my own choices and my own relationships and I’m entitled to live my life with freedom, and not be imprisoned by another person’s power over me.

Thank you for teaching me I need not compromise who I am and all I believe in order to be loved; that I do not need to scrape my knees on the ground of another’s approval, nor ever apologise for who I am to those who choose not to accept me regardless.

Thank you for teaching me I do not need another to complete me; that I am better off being alone than ever being with someone who does not love me with respect, kindness, thoughtfulness, gentleness, acceptance.

Thank you for teaching me never to look back; for all the apologies that didn’t reach your eyes, for all the promises spoken through lying teeth, for all the times I did come back only to end up more shattered by you each time.

Thank you for helping me understand men like you never change.

Thank you for teaching me I deserve more than you.

Thank you for teaching me about love.

The kind of love you could never give.

The kind of love I am worth.

The kind of love I will only ever accept from another so long as they can love me the way I have finally learned to love myself.